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II. How Does Faith Work?

The principal answer is that faith is a work—the main work, according to Calvin—of the Holy Spirit; it is produced in us by the Holy Spirit. The suggestion that belief in the “great things of the gospel” (Jonathan Edwards’s phrase) is a result of some special work of the Holy Spirit is often thought of as especially the teaching of such Calvinist thinkers as Edwards and John Calvin himself. It is, indeed, central to their teaching, and here the model follows them. On this point as on so many others, however, Calvin, despite his pugnacious noise about the pestilential papists and their colossal offenses, may be seen as following out and developing a line of thought already to be found in Thomas Aquinas. “The believer,” says Aquinas, “has sufficient motive for believing, for he is moved by the authority of divine teaching confirmed by miracles and, what is more, by the inward instigation of the divine invitation.310310   Summa Theologiae II-II, q.2, a.9, reply ob. 3 (my emphasis). According to Aquinas, therefore, faith is produced in human beings by God’s action; “for since in assenting to the things of faith a person is raised above his own nature, he has this assent from a supernatural source influencing him; this source is God. The assent of faith, which is its principal act, therefore, has as its cause God, moving us inwardly through grace” (ST II-II, q.6, a.1, respondeo). Here we have (embryonically, at any rate) the same trio of processes: there is belief, there is the divine teaching (as given in Scripture) which is the object of that belief, and there is also special divine activity in the production of the belief (“the inward instigation of the divine invitation”).311311   Calvin explicitly identifies the third person of the trinity as the divine actor in question, and Aquinas does not; this is not a difference of any moment. According to Aquinas, some of the items proposed by God for our belief can also be the objects of scientia; when they are, they are not accepted by faith, for it isn’t possible, he thinks, to have both scientia and faith with respect to the same proposition. Because scientia is often translated as ‘knowledge’, this makes it look as if Calvin contradicts Aquinas when he says that faith is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us. Appearances are deceiving, however, and there is no contradiction here. Scientia for Aquinas is a very special relation between a person and a proposition; it is one that holds when the person sees that the proposition follows from first principles she sees to be true. Thus ‘scientia’ is much narrower than our term ‘knowledge’. It is also narrower than Calvin’s term ‘cognitio’, which is much closer to our contemporary use of ‘knowledge’. When Calvin says that faith is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence to us, he isn’t ascribing to faith a status Aquinas denies it. On this topic, see Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 18–20.

What is really involved, in a believer’s coming to accept the great things of the gospel, therefore, are three things: Scripture (the divine 250teaching), the internal invitation or instigation of the Holy Spirit, and faith, the human belief that results. What sort of phenomenology is involved in this epistemic process: what does it seem like from the inside? In the model, the beliefs constituting faith are typically taken as basic; that is, they are not accepted by way of argument from other propositions or on the evidential basis of other propositions. Of course they could be accepted on the basis of other propositions, and perhaps in some cases are. A believer could reason as follows: I have strong historical and archaeological evidence for the reliability of the Bible (or the church, or my parents, or some other authority); the Bible teaches the great things of the gospel; so probably these things are true. A believer could reason in this way, and perhaps some believers do in fact reason this way. But in the model it goes differently.

We read Scripture, or something presenting scriptural teaching, or hear the gospel preached, or are told of it by parents, or encounter a scriptural teaching as the conclusion of an argument (or conceivably even as an object of ridicule), or in some other way encounter a proclamation of the Word. What is said simply seems right; it seems compelling; one finds oneself saying, “Yes, that’s right, that’s the truth of the matter; this is indeed the word of the Lord.” I read, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”; I come to think: “Right; that’s true; God really was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself!” And I may also think something a bit different, something about that proposition: that it is a divine teaching or revelation, that in Calvin’s words it is “from God.” What one hears or reads seems clearly and obviously true and (at any rate in paradigm cases) seems also to be something the Lord is intending to teach. (As Calvin says, “the Spirit . . . is the only fit corrector and approver of doctrine, who seals it on our hearts, so that we may certainly know 251that God speaks. For while faith ought to look to God, he alone can be a witness to himself, so as to convince our hearts that what our ears receive has come from him.”) So faith may have the phenomenology that goes with suddenly seeing something to be true: “Right! Now I see that this is indeed true and what the Lord is teaching!” Or perhaps the conviction arises slowly, and only after long and hard study, thought, discussion, prayer. Or perhaps it is a matter of a belief’s having been there all along (from childhood, perhaps), but now being transformed, renewed, intensified, made vivid and alive. This process can go on in a thousand ways; in each case there is presentation or proposal of central Christian teaching and, by way of response, the phenomenon of being convinced, coming to see, forming of a conviction. There is the reading or hearing, and then there is the belief or conviction that what one reads or hears is true and a teaching of the Lord.

According to the model, this conviction comes by way of the activity of the Holy Spirit. Calvin speaks here of the internal ‘testimony’ and (more often) ‘witness’ of the Holy Spirit; Aquinas, of the divine ‘instigation’ and ‘invitation’. On the model, there is both Scripture and the divine activity leading to human belief. God himself (on the model) is the principal author of Scripture. Scripture is most importantly a message, a communication from God to humankind; Scripture is a word from the Lord.312312   On this model (pace most twentieth century Christian theologians), it is not the case that revelation occurs just by way of events, which must then be properly interpreted. No doubt this does indeed happen, but much of Scripture is centrally a matter of God’s speaking, of his telling us things we need to know, of his communicating propositions to us. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) for a specific account of precisely how it could be that the Bible constitutes divine speech and a divine communication to us. For the sake of definiteness, in what follows I shall incorporate in the model the proposition that something like Wolterstorff’s account is in fact correct. (Of course other accounts could also serve in the model.) But then this just is a special case of the pervasive process of testimony, by which, as a matter of fact, we learn most of what we know.313313   See Warrant and Proper Function (hereafter WPF), pp. 77ff. From this point of view, Scripture is as much a matter of testimony as is a letter you receive from a friend. What is proposed for our belief in Scripture, therefore, just is testimony—divine testimony. So the term ‘testimony’ is appropriate here. However, there is also the special work of the Holy Spirit in getting us to believe, in enabling us to see the truth of what is proposed. Here Aquinas’s terms ‘invitation’ and ‘instigation’ are more appropriate. I shall therefore use the term ‘inward instigation of the Holy Spirit’ to denote this activity of the Holy Spirit, and (where no confusion 252threatens) the term ‘faith’ to denote both the whole tripartite process (Scripture, the inward instigation of the Holy Spirit, belief in the great things of the gospel) and the last member of that trio.

So Scripture is, indeed, testimony, even if it is testimony of a very special kind. First, the principal testifier is God. It also differs from ordinary testimony in that in this case, unlike most others, there is both a principal testifier and subordinate testifiers: the human authors.314314   Most others: it sometimes happens with human testimony that one person is deputized to speak for another, and in those cases there is the same principal-subordinate structure. See Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, pp. 38ff. There is still another difference: it is the instigation of the Holy Spirit, on this model, that gets us to see and believe that the propositions proposed for our beliefs in Scripture really are a word from the Lord. This case also differs from the usual run of testimony, then, in that the Holy Spirit not only writes the letter (appropriately inspires the human authors)315315   According to Acts 28:25, Paul says, “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, You will ever . . . ’ ” (Isaiah 6:9, 10). but also does something special to enable you to believe and appropriate its contents. So this testimony is not the usual run of testimony; it is testimony nonetheless. According to the model, therefore, faith is belief in the great things of the gospel that results from the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit.


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